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Disadvantaged seeking relief struggle to navigate bureaucracy

BATON ROUGE, La.—For a month now, New Orleans resident Clarence Williams has watched other Hurricane Katrina victims get checks from the federal government and the Red Cross within days of applying, while he has yet to receive a penny.

Williams, 47, who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, applied for relief when he first arrived at the River Center shelter a day after a helicopter plucked him to safety.

With no car, no cell phone and no familiarity with the Internet, he stood in line for four hours last Sunday to learn that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had mailed his check to his flooded-out home in New Orleans. He was told it would be rerouted to his post office box in Baton Rouge. He waits in line daily for mail.

A month after Katrina, Williams and thousands of other homeless evacuees are finding the disaster bureaucracy to be as deep and murky as the floodwaters that swallowed their homes. Relief workers say they're doing the best they can with unprecedented demand. FEMA says its online application takes only 20 minutes to fill out and that applicants can check on their cases using a Web site or an 800 number without standing in line.

"It's simple if you have the means, but how many people in the shelters have a computer?" said Kimberly Butler, a court clerk and former top aide to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

Butler said she easily received two payments from FEMA and the Red Cross totaling more than $5,000. But she added: "There needs to be different methods of access and more readily available customer representatives to assist the people who can't help themselves. ... There needs to be a greater level of sensitivity to the plight of the people."

New Orleans City Council members and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco have urged relief agency representatives to set up more service centers with longer hours and more staff. Blanco's office is pushing to move people from shelters into better transitional housing and to get FEMA and other service agencies to set up where the people are, as rumors run rampant that the farther evacuees go from Louisiana, the better services they get.

Even Red Cross volunteers have been overheard telling shelter residents to get to another state if they can to file for assistance, or to wake up at 4 a.m. if they want to use the phone.

According to FEMA and the governor's office, there are still more than 75,000 people in shelters across the United States, more than half of them in Louisiana.

Katrina victims who have lost their homes are eligible for $2,000 in immediate assistance for food, clothing and shelter, plus $2,300 from FEMA for transitional housing and at least $300 per family member from the Red Cross. Word around the River Center shelter is that people can get $2,000, but most don't know to ask about additional money or long-term help with housing and unemployment, which FEMA also provides based on eligibility.

On Monday, Sept. 26, FEMA discontinued the $2,000 immediate assistance payments for victims of Hurricane Katrina, but is still offering those payments to Hurricane Rita victims.

Williams said he didn't know anything about a second FEMA payment. And he said someone else using his name picked up his Red Cross debit card. He applied for another two weeks ago, but has received nothing.

"If I don't get anything this week, I'm getting back in that line," said Williams, pointing to scores of Katrina victims enduring as much as eight-hour waits in dripping heat outside a FEMA recovery center.

In the days after the storm, people complained of long lines, busy signals and frustration getting through to aid centers. A month later, the stories are the same.

Despite more than 1,000 people still living in the River Center shelter, cell phone companies that offered free phone use right after the hurricane are gone, and the shelter no longer is taking applications for Red Cross relief, saying applicants will have to go to a Red Cross center—location unknown. FEMA officials who were helping shelter residents with Internet access and counseling have left for the recovery center.

Evacuees remaining at the shelter spend hours waiting in line—to use a phone, to see if their checks arrived, to find out why they didn't.

"We spend half our days in somebody's line," said Joe Wilson, 54, who has waited three weeks for a FEMA check. "I feel like a refugee in my own country, and that's not right."

The red tape isn't limited to people in shelters.

Florine Miller, 42, who lost her house in Jefferson Parish and stays with 14 other people in her sister's apartment here, hasn't received any housing assistance despite applying for help from FEMA a month ago.

A mother of four who worked two jobs but had no savings, she couldn't get through on the Red Cross 800 number and was turned away from one Red Cross center before finally finding a place to apply for aid. She has no car and must rely on her brother-in-law to get around the city and to get her children to school.

"Without nothing, I can't do nothing," she said. "It's just hard."

FEMA has processed more than 900,000 applications so far, and $1.5 billion in aid is in the process of being issued, said public affairs officer Rosemarie Hunter.

"If people are not getting it quickly, these numbers tell you we're doing a lot of work," Hunter said.

But disaster relief experts agree that agencies need to do more.

"Four weeks after the event, they should be up and running full speed by now," said George Haddow, a disaster management consultant who was FEMA deputy chief of staff during the Clinton administration. "It's a function of resources. ... If there are five disaster recovery centers and it takes eight hours to get assistance, then go build five more."

Research on disaster relief confirms that people with higher incomes are more likely to get aid, said sociology professor Tricia Wachtendorf.

"They're more likely to have access to aid, vehicles, transportation ... and they're more aware of their eligibility for aid," said Wachtendorf, a faculty member of the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center.

Wachtendorf said relief agencies need to rely less on Web sites and 800 numbers. They should include regular mail, one-stop service centers and consolidated information forms in several languages that people fill out once to qualify for several kinds of aid.

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(Corcoran reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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